The Agitator hosted what became a heated conversation about the value of focusing on relationships in fundraising a while back. The heat came from one commenter in particular.
The Agitator recommended a post by the esteemed Ken Burnett, called Keeping the Right Fundraisers. In his post, Ken offered the Clayton Burnett definition of the two types of fundraisers:
• The radiators spread heat and passion, radiating the warm glow of making a difference.
• The drains suck out the emotion, neutralise feelings and commoditise giving till it becomes like any other commercial transaction. They’ve professionalised to the point that passion, dreams and aspirations are usurped and replaced by the cold, remorseless logic of the marketplace.
He added, “Donors give in spite of the drains. They give because of the radiators.”
Ken tied this to some tough trends.
Donor acquisition is getting harder every year. Acquisition now costs too much for us to take lightly. For smaller organizations, it may be almost out of reach. The answer? Keep the donors you’ve already got!
Most people who commented agreed. Of course! We do this because for us it’s not just a job. It’s a calling. How not to be emotional? And how not to value donors and relationships?
The person who disagreed claimed relationship fundraising was a debunked theory. He wouldn’t offer anything more than opinion to back that claim up, though.
In contract, Denisa Casement shared the exceptional results that she and Lisa Sargent achieved. I urge you to go read all the posts and comments.
Here are my thoughts.
I’ve never worked in a big agency. The nonprofits I work with have been medium-sized at best. We count our donors by the hundreds (maybe low thousands). Testing is hard to do accurately. But I can tell you what I’ve seen, over and over, in nearly 30 years: it is absolutely, positively about relationships.
That doesn’t mean we don’t analyze our results. It doesn’t mean we’re not always learning from the last appeal. It doesn’t mean we don’t track retention numbers. (I can be pretty obsessive about that.)
But at the bottom, what motivates us is our donors.
What do they care about? What drives them? How can we make their donation experience better?
Churn and burn might have raised enough money to “work” once. But in a smaller organization, you know better than to count on it. I’ve never known it to work in the long-run.
What I have seen are the real, emotional connections that donors have to the causes they care about. And when I’ve focused on the donors, not how fantastic the organization is or how much money we need, I raise more money. Always.
When I started a previous job, the first thing I did was write copy that was focused on the donors, not on the organization. I added email and print newsletters that were also about what our donors had done. Thank you letters became personal, not business letters. And they went out promptly. Sometimes the letter was followed by a personal note.
Lapsed donors came back. New donors gave. And current donors gave again. In a short time, I saw a scary retention trend moving in the right direction. None of it was that difficult. The change of attitude really mattered.
So who cares about donors? I do. Not just because caring about donors raises more money. But because those relationships have enriched my life, too. I am proud to be a fundraiser. How about you?